Mar 17, 2010

Patrick's Day: what the hell?

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“You say Saint Patty’s
And I say Saint Paddy’s
Let’s call the whole thing off.”

Chances are that somewhere near you is celebrating the 17 March. From Dili to Tucúman, from Nairobi to Wasila, people celebrate the patron saint of Ireland. But do they really?

Who was this guy? No one knows whether he was from Britain or France. We do know that he was a slave in the mountains for seven years, eating what the pigs ate. A more humble life might be difficult to find. Aided by a mysterious voice he escaped the land of the Gael, but he returned years later to Christianise Pagan Ireland.

Little is known about his mission. All accounts of his doings were chronicled after his death. The only primary accounts are two letters written by Patrick, in which he declares that he “baptised thousands of people”, ordained priests to continue his work and targeted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns in the face of family opposition, and the sons of kings. *

If this was not enough to cement his mission, Patrick reputedly banished the snakes, used the natural flora to explain the Holy Trinity and even baptised one of Ireland’s greatest warriors, Oisín mac Fionn, after his return from Tír na nÓg.

It does make one wonder about the steadfastness of the Irish to yield their gods so quickly, while not under the threat of arms. Although since all remaining documents are accounts kept by the early Irish Christian Church, there is room for a little scepticism. Naturally 17 March is a holy day of obligation in Irish Catholicism – a day for solemn reflection and mass going.

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* Thomas Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge, 2000)

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